Democrats argue party failing to humanize cuts, losing message war

A growing chorus of Democratic loyalists argue their party is losing the messaging battle over spending by failing to put a human face on cuts proposed by the GOP. 

Instead of shining the spotlight on the programs slashed and the people affected, Democrats have let the debate revolve around the cumulative size of the cuts, the critics charge. That attention to an arbitrary figure — and not the underlying programs on the chopping block — has spun the debate into a fight over numbers that lacks a human element.

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It’s a strategy, the critics warn, that gives Republicans a definitive upper hand as lawmakers joust over how to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year.

“The challenge for House Democrats is to make the case that programs that are popular and important are being harmed by a bunch of budget-cutting that is reckless,” said former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), now with the lobbying firm of Alston & Bird. 

“They have to make it specific and relevant to people, and I don’t think they’ve achieved that objective yet. … Up to this point, I don’t think they have been clear about what their objections are.”

Bob Beckel, a Democratic analyst for Fox News, agreed. 

“When it comes to budgets and numbers, Republicans own that issue, they have for a long time,” he said. “We’re not going to win the fight on numbers. We’re going to win it on what government means, and what it means to people, and how Republicans don’t care what it means.

“If you expose what [Republicans] have done, as opposed to numbers, then you expose what this whole thing’s about, which is a bunch of fringe right-wingers,” said Beckel, a longtime veteran of Democratic campaigns. “That’s what’s missing in this debate, and that’s where Obama needs to pick up the slack.”

Beckel slammed Republicans for targeting a sliver of the federal budget — non-defense discretionary spending — that includes a number of programs benefiting low- and middle-income Americans. Meanwhile, the programs posing the most significant threat to the nation’s fiscal health — including Medicare — have been left alone, he noted. It’s a distinction the Democrats haven’t trumpeted loudly enough, Beckel said.

“When you let the Republicans seem like these big budget cutters — when they go after the weakest, most vulnerable people, and you don’t call them on it — you’re giving them ground that they have no right to be walking on,” he said. “They are morally bankrupt on that, so why give it to them?”

At issue is how to fund the government through September. Pressured by conservatives, House Republican leaders have offered $61 billion in cuts before October. They say the cuts are needed immediately because federal spending has encroached on private enterprise and hindered job creation. They haven’t budged from their proposal to slash $61 billion this year.

Democrats, meanwhile, say cutting too much too soon will threaten a fragile economy still recovering from the recent recession. They’ve agreed to roughly $10 billion in cuts this year, but have shown little interest in going further.

Faced with the stalemate, Congress this week passed a three-week stopgap bill — including $6 billion in cuts — designed to give lawmakers more time to hash out a long-term deal. It follows on the heels of a two-week extension, including $4 billion in cuts, enacted earlier in the month.

It’s not that the Democrats haven’t tried to elevate the debate beyond the numbers. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week that the size of the cuts matters much less than the programs and people they’ll affect. 

“If middle ground is to say that 6 million seniors who are home-bound will no longer receive Meals on Wheels – but we can just compromise at 3 million – I don’t think that’s an appropriate debate,” Pelosi said. 

“We can cut in a way that does not undermine our values," she added. "It’s not about money, it’s about the morality of what we are doing.”

Pelosi, who voted against both short-term spending bills this month, said Democrats would be open to deficit-reduction strategies outlined by both the White House deficit commission and the Government Accountability Office, which released a report this month identifying billions of dollars in redundant government spending.

Still, aside from proposals to cut oil subsidies and funding for a pair of Alaskan bridges, Pelosi and the Democrats haven’t outlined what specific cuts they’d prefer as alternatives to the GOP’s plan.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami declined to identify what areas she’s eyeing specifically, saying the California Democrat doesn’t want to negotiate through the press. 

Democratic observers said party leaders should refocus their strategy to highlight how the GOP cuts would affect one or two well-liked programs. 

“You can’t defend 50 programs at once,” Pomeroy said. “They have to find an illustrative cut that’s absolutely outrageous, and help the public understand this is very bad policy and it’s reflective of what a lot of the cuts represent.”

Beckel suggested that Head Start, a popular supplemental education and nutrition program for low-income kids, would fit the bill. Republicans have proposed to cut the program by more than $1 billion this year, eliminating hundreds of thousands of kids from the program.

“That’s real people, that’s real stuff,” Beckel said. “It’s not a Michele Bachmann rally someplace.”

Beckel said the Democrats should be willing to let the government shut down before capitulating to the Republicans’ current proposal. “You can’t just destroy Head Start because a bunch of Tea Party people campaigned on $100 billion [in cuts],” he said. “The hell with ’em.”